Can a Sheep Stray from the Fold?

By Wayne Jackson

“A friend of mine insists that a Christian can never fall away from the grace of God so as to be lost. One of the Bible verses that she uses in support of this idea is in John’s Gospel, chapter 10, verses 27-28. ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand’ [KJV]. Would you comment on this passage?”

The Gospel of John is a very selective piece of literature relative to the events of Jesus’ earthly ministry. John fills in some of the “blanks” that the other Gospel writers purposely leave — due to the particular design of their records. For example, John’s account of the Lord’s visit to Jerusalem, at the time of “the feast of the dedication” (10:22ff), is unique to his narrative.

During the events of that occasion, the Savior uttered these words: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (10:27). There are some extremely important thoughts here that are worthy of notation. They qualify the promise that is made subsequently.

First, it is clear from the overall context that the term “sheep” is here employed of those who are the Lord’s disciples. They are plainly set in contrast to the hostile Jews who, though they had been exposed to ample information concerning Jesus’ identity, nonetheless did not believe on him, hence, refused to follow him (see v. 25).

Second, one must take note of precisely how the sheep are described. This is crucial, because the character of the sheep emphasizes why they are secure.

  1. The sheep “hear” the Shepherd’s voice. “Hear” is from akouo, which signifies to listen. The word is found 58 times in John’s Gospel, and, in this context, as with many others, it denotes an obedient listening to Jesus (see J.H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958, p. 23).

    Too, the verb is in the Greek present tense, which suggests -not a spasmodic interest - but a sustained determination to do the Lord’s will.
  2. Those who “hear” the Shepherd’s voice “follow” him. This verb translates a compound term, akoloutheo, which contains the two ideas of “likeness” and “way,” hence it pictures one who is going in the same way. In the four Gospel accounts the word occurs 77 times — and 76 of these have to do with following Christ!

    Again, it is a present tense form. The meaning thus is, if we may paraphrase: “The one who keeps on listening (i.e., obeying) Jesus Christ, will find himself continuing in the same way as his Shepherd.”
  3. The text does not claim that the sheep have no volition, no power of choice; clearly, they do. They voluntarily hear and follow. Accordingly, if they continue in this course of sustained fidelity, no one will be able to “pluck” or “snatch” (ASV) then from the Lord’s hand. There term “snatch” is from the Greek harpazo, which carries the idea of “to grab or seize suddenly so as to remove or gain control” (F.W. Danker, et al., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 134). It is used here in the sense of taking someone captive by force (cf. Jn. 6:15; Acts 23:10).

Can anyone force the child of God to abandon his Savior? The answer is, “No.” But can the Christian voluntarily surrender his own faith and forfeit his hope of eternal life? He certainly can and there is ample Bible evidence establishing this sad reality.

We have discussed this matter in considerable detail in our book, Eternal Security – Fact or Fiction?, which constitutes a review of Charles Stanley’s work on this theme.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.